By Michael Lanza
With our first steps on the descent from Maze Overlook into the labyrinth of mostly dry desert canyons that comprise one of the greatest geological oddities in the National Park System—the Maze in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park—we had to remove and pass our backpacks over a ledge drop of several feet. But that was nothing compared to what lay ahead. Following a wildly circuitous trail marked by cairns but otherwise unobvious and not visible on the slickrock, we passed below redrock cliffs and towers, traversed the sloping rims of giant bowls of rippled stone, and several more times passed our packs to scramble through tight crevices and downclimb a ladder of shallow footsteps chiseled into a sandstone cliff face.
Taking nearly three hours to descend just a mile and 500 vertical feet, we reached the sandy bottom of the South Fork of Horse Canyon—and began searching for the one natural spring that we hoped would sustain us for the next three days.
Three friends and I took a five-day backpacking trip into the Maze in the first week of March, when we had warm sunshine much of the time and temps in the 40s and 50s most days, with nights in the teens and 20s. But most critically, we found water in a place where the few sources can go dry by later in spring.
The trip presented us with surprises nearly every day. Mornings delivered beautiful sunrises setting fire to redrock cliffs and ice in our water bottles. Almost every night, the brilliant streak of the Milky Way spilled across the ink-black sky, a sight so clear and bright it felt almost alarming.
From a base camp for two nights near the first spring we found, surrounded by towering walls of desert varnish, we dayhiked a nine-mile loop that would prove more adventurous and scenic than I think any of us expected—even after the descent from Maze Overlook.
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Following the Chimney Route past the Harvest Scene pictographs, we walked down a canyon that grew steeper and more rugged as we followed a cairned route zigzagging up ledges on a canyon wall. In spots, rocks stacked by trail builders act as step ladders, enabling us to clamber over the smooth lip of a high ledge or a pour over carved by water. That route brought us to the slender tower of Chimney Rock, which looks like hardened, dark-brown mud.
From Chimney Rock, we followed the Pete’s Mesa Route along a high, broad ridge, with a constant panorama of towers and side canyons choked with fallen rocks tumbling away to either side of us. The route eventually rolled abruptly off the tableland and we scrambled down short, vertical drops, using more step ladders of stacked rocks, reaching the bottom of another tight, anonymous side canyon and walking down it and back to our tents.
We saw one other person that entire day and only a handful of people in five days.
The gallery below features some of my photos from backpacking the Maze District in Canyonlands. Scroll below the gallery for the link to my story about this trip, which includes my expert tips on how to take it yourself, including how to obtain a backcountry permit.
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See my feature story about this trip “Farther Than It Looks—Backpacking the Canyonlands Maze,” which, like many stories about trips at The Big Outside, includes my detailed tips on planning it yourself and requires a paid membership to read in full.
See all stories about Canyonlands National Park at The Big Outside.